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Workers at the state-run National News Agency went on strike yesterday over fair pay. One staffer told L’Orient Today that the cause of the strike was the disparity in pay in the civil service. The NNA staffer was referring to reports that judges are now allowed to withdraw their salaries at an exchange rate of LL8,000 instead of the official LL1,500 rate following a directive by Banque du Liban. A judicial source confirmed Thursday that the judges are now allowed to withdraw their pay at banks at LL8,000. Though denied by BDL, the reports have received backlash from public officials, chief among them Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who asked for the move to be rectified on Wednesday. Caretaker Labor Minister Mustafa Bayram called the measure “unstudied and improvised selectivity.” Ironically, the move also received backlash from one judge, Mount Lebanon Prosecutor Ghada Aoun who denounced the move as “humiliating” as it was granted by BDL Governor Riad Salameh, who Prosecutor Aoun has been pursuing in a criminal investigation. NNA staff join other public sector workers who are observing the fourth week of an open-ended strike.
Parliament's Finance and Budget, and Foreign Affairs and Expatriates committees have approved a $150 million World Bank loan to fund wheat imports. It was approved by the World Bank in May, but had yet to be implemented as it still awaits ratification from the new Parliament. Due to bread shortages, a black market for bread bundles has emerged with some selling at LL30,000, twice the regulated price. On Tuesday, two bystanders were injured by gunshots at a Tripoli bakery in a fight that broke out over who would get bread first. Last Friday, caretaker Economy Minister Amin Salam blamed the private sector for the shortages, accusing them of profiting off subsidized wheat. Currently, only wheat being used to make Arabic bread continues to be subsidized; wheat for other uses, such as cakes or croissants, is not, which has led to accusations that the subsidized wheat is being hoarded or used for other kinds of baked goods to turn a higher profit. Lebanon used to import most of its wheat from the Black Sea region, with Russia and Ukraine topping the list of importing countries. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has hampered the latter’s exports of wheat as most of its ports have shut down. Separately, MP Ibrahim Kanaan said that the Finance and Budget committee will meet Monday to approve a law lifting banking secrecy.
Fire continues to rage at the Beirut Port’s destroyed grain silos, as MPs demand action. In the wake of the mysterious fire that has plagued the site, with reports of it for more than a week now, two opposition MPs of the Taqaddom party, Najat Aoun (Saliba) and Mark Daou, inspected the area, attributing the cause to the fermentation of the left-over wheat. Meanwhile, caretaker Economy Minister Amin Salam also visited the site yesterday, and told reporters present that the “fires will continue as long as wheat remains,” and that emptying the silos of the wheat would possibly level the structure. The fire has been continuously burning since Monday. On Wednesday, caretaker Public Works Minister Ali Hamieh told L’Orient Today that he had barred firefighters from approaching the silos to attempt to extinguish the blaze, saying that there was danger the silos would collapse. The silos were originally completed in 1970, built by the Czech company, Prumstav, with funding from Kuwait, but owing to its proximity to ammonium nitrate laden warehouse 12, was severely damaged.
A local accounting firm has disputed BDL Governor Riad Salameh’s assertion that an audit had cleared him of wrongdoing. The firm, BDO, Semaan, Gholam & Co, said in a letter seen by Reuters, that Salameh’s financial review of the bank’s assets carried in November of last year did not constitute an official audit, as it only used information provided by him. Ironically, the firm was initially hired by the governor late last year to review whether he had embezzled funds from the central bank. Salameh is under investigation in several countries, including an ongoing Swiss probe into financial gains made by a company that his brother, Raja Salameh, is connected to, Forry Associates Ltd. The Salameh brothers have also denied wrongdoing in that case. The company allegedly received $330 million in commissions from the central bank’s sale of Eurobonds between 2002 and 2015.
In case you missed it, here’s our must-read story from yesterday: “What is preventing Tarek Bitar from carrying on with his investigation?”